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Culture & Art

Khalaf Zebari: A Lifelong Voice of Kurdish Language and Culture

In 1991, he applied for a job at the VOA, where he worked until May 2012, when he was forced to retire due to deteriorating health.
In 1991, he applied for a job at the VOA, where he worked until May 2012, when he was forced to retire due to deteriorating health.


WASHINGTON DC - Earlier this month, at the Virginia hospital where he has been in a life-and-death struggle for a month, I went to visit Khalaf Zebari, whose voice is known to many Kurds around the world from Kurdish-language broadcasts of the Voice of America (VOA).

His wife Chiman, who was beside him at the intensive care unit, told me that doctors had told her he would not survive, and they should let him go. “No, I told them angrily,” she said. “I told them, ‘do everything you can.’”

My first contact with Zebari was over the phone 19 years ago, when I was a high school student in Turkey. His pure Kurdish accent and remarkable voice had fascinated me all the years I had tuned in to the VOA’s Kurdish programs.

His weekly show Ferheng û Toreya Kurdi or “Kurdish Literature and Culture” and Michael Chyet’s Zimane Me were my favorite programs.  Zebari would interview Kurdish poets, writers or journalists around the world -- from Europe to the Middle East and from the former Soviet Union to Australia.

He talked about the Kurdish classical poets, love stories, legends and epics. It was thanks to his program that I learned a great deal about Kurdish literature, culture and oral tradition.

In 2004, when I met him face-to-face for the first time in Washington, I expected to see the tall, big man behind the imposing voice. I was surprised to see that Zebari was neither tall nor big. He was short and slender.

My friendship with Mamosta Zebari continued while I was in Turkey, and afterwards in Canada. After I moved to the United States in 2009, we became even closer.  Together with Chiman, their two children Znar and Jvan and daughter-in-law Harez, they became a true family for me.

Besides being a true friend, Zebari has also been a great mentor and genuine role model for me. I had the privilege of working with him at the VOA Kurdish service for four years, where I got to know him better and tap into his deep knowledge of the Kurdish language, literature and culture. What he taught me about broadcasting guide me to this day in my profession.

Zebari was born on March 12, 1948 in the Zebar region of Akre in Iraqi Kurdistan. In 1970, he graduated from Mosul University with a B.A. in economics. Three years later, he joined the Kurdish Freedom Movement and began his career as a translator and news broadcaster at the Voice of Kurdistan. In March 1975, following the collapse of the Kurdish Movement, he sought refuge in Iran with thousands of other Kurds.

In 1977, he emigrated to the United States and settled with his wife and infant daughter in Nashville, Tennessee, where he began a new life. In 1981, Zebari published a magazine in Kurdish and Arabic named Denge Gel, or “The Voice of the People.”

He got into radio broadcasting in 1974, when the Iraqi army attacked Kurdistan.

“I started working for the Voice of Kurdistan, which was a radio run by the Kurdish movement. The program mostly was about the war operations, news of the war, of Iraqi attacks on the region. I had sympathy with the Kurdish movement like most of the young Kurds then,” according to Zebari’s recollections.

In 1975, after the end of the Kurdish uprising as hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurds became refugees in Iran, Zebari met his wife-to-be at a refugee camp in Iran. In 1976, they applied for asylum in the United States and shortly after moved to Nashville, where he joined his cousins and became part of the small Kurdish community.

For 15 years he worked at any job he could find, mostly in restaurants.

“I did many jobs, but I felt that I lived in freedom.” he said. “That was the most important for me! To go anywhere I wanted to, to talk about anything you have in mind.”

In 1991, he applied for a job at the VOA, where he worked until May 2012, when he was forced to retire due to deteriorating health.

Zebari grew up in a family of five brothers and two sisters. He left home to attend high school in town, where he began to write poetry, and then went on the study economics at the University of Mosul.

Although all his education was in Arabic, Zebari taught himself to read and write Kurdish. While still in high school he began writing poetry in his ethnic tongue. His first collection of poems was published in 1999, called Ware Seran or “The Land of Lions.”

“I wrote many poems about love, our homeland Kurdistan, Kurdish society, Newroz -- the Kurdish New Year and the symbol of freedom and national existence,” he recalled.

Many of Zebari’s poems also have been set to music, and have become popular songs. His poem Nesrin, which was composed by well-known Kurdish singer Mohammed Sheikho, is one of the most beloved songs in all four parts of Kurdistan.

Bo Kê Bikim Gazî û Hawar – “Who Shall I Call or Turn to” – was his cry when some 5,000 fellow Kurds were gassed to death in the town of Halabja by Saddam Hussein’s forces in 1988.

Who should I call or turn to?  Should I turn to the same cold, frozen conscience, or to the deaf and silent world?, was Zebari’s lament.

Today, Zebari’s wife laments that she does not know who to turn to as doctor’s – who perhaps know nothing of this man’s struggle and role in lifting the Kurdish spirit during some of our worst times – say that he must die.


Şehram Şikak | 19/9/2013
Gelik cîyê heyf u mixabinîêye.rastî gelik pê wê xeberê xembar bum Kekê Xelef Zêbarî mirovik mezine bila xudê arîkar be Hivîdarbeim ji yezdanê dilovan Kek Xelef sax u silamet bu malbata wî u gelê me wergerîne di gel silav u rêza Şehram Şikak
Mohamad s zibari | 19/9/2013
Thank you very much for this article, Khalaf is a brave Kurdish man who has done great service to his Kurdish nation, you should pay him another visit , with the love and support of his family and friends he is doing much better specially past week or so, again thank you for this brief history about mamusta 'xelefe Zebari
Nijyar Shemdin | 19/9/2013
Last August 31st, I paid a visit to Mamusta Khalaf Zebari, at the Nova Hospital, intensive care section, thanks to Kak Hikmat Bamarni, KDP7DC director, who took the time and trouble to arrange it. I found Kak Khalaf weak, slow but awake. He recognized me. Our relationship goes back many years. I first heard him on Radio Denge Kurdustan, in 1972, when I was in Beirut, Lebanon, supporting the movement. We were getting the latest news. On a daily basis we used to get the new wavelength to evade the Iraqi Government jamming attempts. His health is improving, thanks to Ciman Xan's efforts, nursing knowledge, and expertise, without which he would not be among us. He was ever thankful to HE KRI President Massoud Barzani for making personal calls to check on him. But was critical of other officials who, during their Washington DC visit claimed did not have time to look him up. Kak Khalf is a great asset to our heritage, culture and language. I wish him fast recovery. Nijyar Shemdin Reston, VA
Mihemed | 21/9/2013
Zarok bûm dema cara pêşiyê min dengê Xelefê Zêbarî, ew dengê ji top û debabeyen Sedamî xurtir û karîgertir di radyoya Dengê Kurdistanê de bihîstî. Piştî salan dema careke dî min ew dêng di salên 90-an da di radyoya Dengê Emerîka de bihîst tazînegan laşê min girt; ez ber bi wan rojên zarokitiyê ve çûm; ji wê zarokatiya min li bîra min maye ko, hestên hêviyên azadiya mileteke bindest bi awayekî herî xurt zarok dijîn... ew deng çi dengek efsûnî bû dengê birûskeyên azadiyê bû,.. Min di hemî jiyana xwe de hêj dengek wesa mitesir nebihîstiye... Piştî salên 2000-ê (2005 û berjor) dema cara pêşiyê Xelefê Zêbarî bo hevpeyvîneke bo radyoya Denge Emerîka telefonî min kir, min wesa zanîn ko ez ketim kemberek ya rastî û efsaneyan.... min zêdê de tiştek ne got, min got: "ji kerema xwe re hema tu biaxive û ez guhdariyê dengê te bikim..." helbet ne tenê dengê Xelefê Zebarî dengek efsûnî, hêj miletê kurd bêjerek dî kurd yê/ya ko kurdiya wî/wê wekî ya Xelefê Zêbar pak û delal dernexsitiye ser rûyê dinê... bawer dikim ji aliyê kalîteya deng ve jî kalîteya dengê wî yê bêjeriyê jî di dinê de di pileya yekê de ye. Ew di heman demê de şairê gelek stranên kurdî ye, gelo kîjan kurd heye ko kilama Nesrînê ya Mihemd Şêxo dibêje nezane, ew kilam jî ji aliyê Xelefê Zêbarî ve hatiy nivîsandin... xwezî niha nesrînek bûma li pişt serê Xelefê Zêbarî..... Mihemed | 30/9/2013
I first met Mr. Xelefe Zebari in Washington DC in 1995. He was a slim man with a deep voice. I could never have imagine to match him with his voice. He has bee my long time idle and I truly have a lot of respect for him and have been listening to his voice even since he worked for The Voice of Kurdistan in Iraqi Kurdistan. Ms. Zebari is a true Kurd and has gone through a lot of heart ache to have established the Kirmanji at the Voice of America. If it was not for Mrs. Zebari, they would not have Kirkmanji and would have abolish it all together. However, Mrs. Zebari speak fluent Sorani an never had differentiated between the two dialect, but he said it is important for the existent of both dialects because of the large percentage of the Kurds are the Kurmanji speakers. Mr. Zebari is a talented and educated man. He is one of the most honest and caring person I have ever met. He has been helping my fellow Syrian Kurds financially which is very much appreciated it as some people are in need. I wish the Kurdish officials pay extra attention to Xelefe Zebari as he is a great asset to our nation. Biryar Xemo
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